The ride had been smoother now, but I still wasn’t entirely happy. Pretty much all of us were more than eager to be back in town again. Fortunately, by this time tomorrow, we’d be back at the safehouse. Unless we got grief about renting the wagon and horses, but I had no idea what we’d do then. A recharge, and then back home.
Some of us seemed more upset than others, though. Brenda had been in a bad mood ever since we’d gotten back and explained everything that had happened. John was more accommodating, but he’d made up for it with a lot of questions. More than I would have liked to be asked.
Still, I was getting worried about our precog.
“Your face is gonna stick that way, Brenda. What’s wrong?”
Her body tightened a little bit more before relaxing a bit. “I just think that you should have beat the shit out of them. Send a message, you know? Or brought back their weapons. You’re underarmed.”
“Okay, first off, I’m never underarmed. If need be, I’ll use this wagon as a weapon. Yeah, I’d like to have guns again, but they can wait. Second, I’m not comfortable taking their weapons, especially after that wildling attack.”
“For what it’s worth,” John said, turning to look at us from the front of the wagon. “I’m in perfect agreement on this matter. I’m far from the best of people, none of us are, save perhaps our beleagued warrior here. However, I am a man of standards and principles.
“You see, all of you, even Kathy here to a limited extent, you are the products of a particularly brutal world, creating a sense of… Well, brutality is too strong of a word. So is callusness. But there is a certain desensitization to the horrors of the world that all of you have gained due to having been forged in the fires of that world.”
He sighed dramatically. “On the other hand, I was forged in a city of millions, surrounded not by the daily fear of death by wildlings, disease, or rampaging paras, but by a far more comfortable life. Yes, we had Endbringers, and paras, but for the average person, the horrors of the world were nothing compared to today.”
“You were soft,” Brenda said bitterly.
“Yes!” If he took the slightest offense, John didn’t show it. Even with Brenda’s eyes covered, he was all smiles. “In a way, we were soft! But remember, people still had the boogeymen of the Slaughterhouse Nine, or even survived Brockton Bay and Skitter.
“Regardless, I’m used to people. So many people, that you could drown in them all! And now, to see so few… It’s horribly bittersweet. Humanity survived, but with so few people. Even today, we stand on the brink of extinction. The very idea of snuffing out another life, through action, inaction, or by taking away their very capability of survival is most distasteful.
“And had we taken their weapons, we would be sentencing them to just that. Jordan, you said that one of their horses were dead, correct?”
“Yeah,” I said with a nod. He was hitting the very notes that I would have, just in a different way.
“Precisely. This would leave us dooming them to exactly such a fate, without the proper horses to pull their wagon. They would have to limp back to the village, hoping and praying the entire time that wildlings wouldn’t accost them once more. They would be thrust into death and doom so easily… No, Jordan and Emi did the right thing.”
“It’s not their fault anyway,” I added in. “They were offered a job, and they honestly went about it smart. They could have ambushed all of us, but they didn’t. They could have made me more uncomfortable, or put a bag over my head, or denied me food or water. But they didn’t. They’re just a crew trying to do their job.”
“Yeah,” Brenda said slowly. I could see the fight slowly leaving her, but not without a last-ditch effort to push it through. “But it would have sent a message if anyone tried again. Don’t mess with us, or else you’ll get messed up.”
“Not… Not exactly.” I took a slow breath. “Listen, right now, if they wanna keep their rep, they’re going to have to talk about it. So they’re either gonna have to play me up as an insane threat, or tell the truth. And if they spin it right, they can do both. After all, I was kept in an uncomfortable position, but leaped into fighting them without a moment’s hesitation. Then, in the middle of Emi and I taking them down, we took down pack of wildlings as if it was nothing.”
“Is their rep that important?” Emi asked.
I nodded quickly. “Yeah. To a merc, your rep can literally translate into your paycheck. You want to be known for being capable. Everything else on top of that, that means possibly a better job. The better your rep, the more leverage you have in negotiations. Of course, it also means that you might get more dangerous jobs. It’s up to you if you take it or not, though.
“Sarah and I spent a lot of time focusing on our rep, but that was partially so that we would have an easier time with the Wardens.”
“Is that why you went to Saint Louis?” Kathy asked without taking her eyes off the road. “To boost your rep?”
“No. I… I wanted to ask Dinah Alcott some questions.”
“Oh?” Emi perked up. “What’s so important that you needed one of the biggest precogs out there?”
“Emi,” John said, his tone low and warning.
“It’s alright,” I said with a smile before turning to her. “I wanted to figure out how to trigger, so that I could join the Wardens.”
Emi opened her mouth to talk, but hesitated. After a moment, she tried again. “So, uh… What… What did she say?”
“That it’s not gonna happen,” I said with a shrug. Funny, I hadn’t thought about that in a long, long time. “I’m never gonna trigger.”
“Bullshit,” Brenda said, her voice dangerous. “That’s… complete and utter fucking bullshit. You’ve been through way more than any of us.”
“It’s not like that,” I said softly.
“Really? John got the shit beat out of him, thinking that he was going to die from old enemies. How many times have you gone through that? Kathy was caught in the crossfire of a shootout.” Kathy stiffened — I was willing to bet that she’d never actually told that story. Brenda had probably picked it up using her power. “Gee, no, you’ve never been in a shootout where you were scared to death that people around you might die. Emi was almost drowned by a Warden, and I definitely remember you talking about that wildling that strangled you.
“I watched my parents willingly march to be sacrificed. And I sure as fuck can tell you that you hurt just as bad saying goodbye to your sister. So don’t tell me that it isn’t like that!”
I fell silent, dropping my head. Being reminded of that felt like a stab to the chest, so I buried it deep. Instead, I focused on something about as painful — what she said about herself.
Brenda was tightly closed-lipped about her cult. I’d made out a few things, here and there — she was well-educated, but she didn’t actually know a lot about the world. Most cults survived by tightly controlling information. Free thinkers didn’t tend to last long in them, inevitably causing problems, so education was rarely actually a thing. Honestly, I would have put her as having close to an Orphanage-level education.
It would have raised some suspicions of lying if she hadn’t been so unaware of the world around her. She could keep up with the rest of us, probably thanks to her power, but there was always something that she just didn’t understand, often quietly pulling Kathy or Emi aside to quietly ask them a question after the fact, or occasionally voicing her questions aloud.
But for the most part, her life with her cult was something that she almost never referenced. Perhaps it was shame, or fear, or even guilt. Hearing this, now, I was willing to bet it was the latter. And it told me that some day, I’d like to kill her cult leader for her, if only to spare her from doing it herself.
But it also made sense with her power. She’d watched her parents march to their deaths for some reason. She’d used the word sacrificed, which could be figurative or literal. I was edging towards literal. So she’d probably not wanted to lose them, and had been in a blind panic, trying to think of any way that they could avoid that fate when she’d triggered.
It wasn’t perfect, and I’d need to know more about the details in order to piece together how her being around other parahumans made her power stronger in relation to how she triggered, but it was enough for now.
“Bren,” John said quietly. “Some people can go through worse than all of us and never trigger.” He reached out to lay a gentle hand on her shoulder. “They can go through things that we… We can’t even imagine the pain that they go through. But they don’t. I don’t think anyone knows why, either.”
He glanced to me, and I gave him a single nod. There were theories, but…
“Such a fate isn’t fair. It isn’t right, especially when there is an individual who is not only deserving, but when we might see that they could be such a noble and powerful person with their power as Jordan. We know this, you and I. We know that he would develop even the weakest of powers into something truly astounding, and use it to transform the world around him.
“But life isn’t fair, and all too often, the people who are the most deserving, who should logically be the most apt to trigger… Simply don’t.”
That didn’t seem to comfort her in the slightest.
“Besides,” Kathy said carefully. “Look at him. Even before we add in what the Tinkers did to him, he’s practically a Brute already. Whatever happened to him while taking on that Tinker, I think that most of us would have died trying to do what he did. But he made it through on grit alone. Add in the fact that they’ve fiddled with his body so much, and…”
She finally glanced back at me. “Fuck, Jordan, people like you don’t die easy. In your own way, you were a badass before you even came to the Orphanage, weren’t you?”
“Dunno,” I said with a shrug. “I honestly don’t remember.”
“Mmm.” She looked back to the road, something that I was thankful for. “I’m not surprised.”
“What’s it like?” Emi asked. “The Orphanage? I mean, Kathy’s told us some, but I’ve been curious about what it was like for you.” She was definitely eager for a topic change. To be fair, so was I.
“Good,” I said with a nod. “It’s a good place. There’s… There’s a lot of hurting people there. Not just the orphans, but it’s… I dunno. There’s still laughter, and love. A lot of love, more than I see in most places, to be honest. Nobody really sticks around the Orphanage after graduation unless either it’s part of their contract, or unless they really, really want to.
“They’re always doing something with the kids there, and they’re always helping each other out. The guy who taught me how to shoot, he was amazing, but he had a bad stutter. But he could also teach you everything that you wanted to know about a gun without saying a word. Most of my time with him was spent in silence, save for shooting.
“When I first met my martial arts trainer, he was a drunken lout. His life had taken a heavy toll on him, so I didn’t blame him. It’s easier to deal with while drunk. But after a few years of teaching me, he started to quit drinking. Not, like, not entirely, but now he only has a beer or two, you know? He regained some fire in his eyes. I think he needed me more than I needed him.”
I sighed as fond memories came back to me, the corners of my mouth lifting upwards. “There was always something to do, something to learn. As they got more and more teachers, I never found myself wanting for an education, not for any subject. All that I had to do was sign up for a class, or hunt down the right person, and I could learn whatever I wanted.”
I looked over to Kathy’s back. “Remember the monument?”
“Atlas,” she said with a grin. “He was Skitter’s pet beetle way back when. He was absolutely massive, bigger than even a dog. He was more like a small horse or something. When he died, they bronzed him. After Gold Morning, they put him up in the center of the Orphanage as a monument to where the roots for the Orphanage started, and how things could be lost.
“But there were always kids on him.” She chuckled a little. “I can see you doing that. Sitting on him, your chest puffed out, pretending to go fight some villains or something.”
“Nah,” I said with a grin. “Not my thing. But I spent a lot of time near it. The three of us, we found it a good place to study and hang out. We’d nap there a lot.”
I looked back to Emi. “I was probably, I dunno, ten when the hive first came up. They, uh, they’d been around for quite some time. There are a lotta folks from Brockton Bay and Chicago there, so it was an easy way to get a few words out of folks. And all of the Undersiders would show up on occasion.”
“All of them?” John asked, curiously.
I nodded. “Even Bitch showed up once, with a ton of puppies. She didn’t smile or anything, she just watched all the kids as they played with the dogs. But you could tell that she was kinda enjoying it, watching us.
“Parian and Foil showed up, too. The Matron… Uh, I mean, Charlotte… Heh, it still feels weird to call her that. Anyway, back in the day, after Taylor turned herself in, they all banded together to help Charlotte out. Money, taking care of whatever business needed taken care of, or just helping with the kids. They all got pretty close, you know? Well, closer after Gold Morning, for some.
“Miss Sierra… She’s one of Tattletale’s oldest employees, I think. Not as in age, or anything, but she’s been there from the start, and was really close to Charlotte. She used to live at the Orphanage for a while, but… Well, she left to deal with Tattletale more. Still, I consider her an Undersider. But Tattletale herself would go there when she needed to get away from New Brockton for a while.”
“I think she just wanted the soda,” Kathy said with a wry grin.
“I wouldn’t be surprised.” I chuckled a little before looking back to Emi again. “Honestly, the Orphanage is home for me. Everywhere else has just been where I lived, really. But there? All of my happiest memories are there.”
I paused for a moment. “No. No, I think that’s wrong. I have had some extremely happy memories since I left there, and I’m eternally thankful that I met up with all of you. I don’t think that I could ask for a better group of friends.”
Something about that hurt Brenda. I could tell from the subtle way that her body tightened. But she didn’t say anything. Did she feel like she’d betrayed me somehow?
I was pretty sure she hadn’t. At least, not in any way that I could see.
“So,” I said slowly. Hopefully, I could change the topic well enough. “Fenix will get us the funds to replace what was spent on getting me healed up. Is his relationship with Nexus going to be a problem?”
“No,” John said. After a moment, he tilted his head back and forth. “And yes. It’s complicated, but for the most part, we’re going to keep using him. Much as I’m loathe to admit it, he is damn good at what he does, and his connection to Nexus is helpful. We made assumptions on how he moved both informationn and goods, but the revelation of his ties puts things in a new light that makes far more sense.”
“But,” Kathy added quickly. “But, we can’t trust his information completely anymore. We have to assume that it serves Nexus’ purposes as well.”
“Why is that a problem?” I asked.
Emi scoffed. “Dummy. ‘Cos we don’t wanna be used.”
“Well, yeah, but…” I bit my lip, looking back to John and Kathy. “I mean, I always got the impression that he gave you some options, and then you sorted through them.”
“Indeed,” John said with a nod.
“Alright. Well, then Nexus can’t control us. We’re still getting exactly what we would have out of it even if Nexus weren’t involved. Yeah, we might be helping Nexus out, which is something that I’m not too cool with myself, but…” I shrugged, words failing me.
“That’s actually something that Kathy and I discussed,” John admitted. “We… Well, we think that we might be able to spin it in our favor. And I can’t argue the righteousness of what we did for him, despite the disastrous effect that it had on you. I suspect that you would have done it anyway, had you learned of the village’s plight.”
“Oh yeah,” I said with a nod. “I’d do it all over again, no hesitation. I’d just do it a little differently this time, and maybe do some briefings with you all first so that we can be on the same page.” I’d skipped that for the most part last time. Maybe they could have taken down the Wardens themselves if they’d had an idea on how to fight them better.
“Precisely. Now, should we happen to get tied up in something that is bigger than it appears, we would be wise to approach Fenix afterwards and discuss the nature of it so that we can determine the depths of Nexus’ fingerprints on it.”
“Wouldn’t he lie for Nexus?” Brenda asked quietly.
“Perhaps,” Kathy admitted. “I mean, it’s a strong possibility, but it’s also likely that he might not. We’re reliable customers, and he makes a lot of dosh off of us. Especially this year. I doubt he’ll want to screw us.”
“I wouldn’t mind screwing him,” John admitted wistfully.
Brenda snorted, putting her hands over her mouth to hide a blush that hit her ears, and I could see Emi roll her eyes. Right. I could get in on this.
“Ah, so I finally get a hint as to your type.” John raised an eyebrow at me. Crap. A wave of awkward self-consciousness washed over me. “Uh… You told me a long time ago that, um, that I wasn’t your type, and I’ve just, y’know, been curious what your type is.”
His lips quirked upwards as he turned back ahead. “Jordan, Jordan, Jordan. I’ll tell you when you’re older.”
I groaned, rolling my head back, as everyone else chuckled.
“Water,” I said idly.
Brenda cocked her head. “A stream, yeah. It sounds like a decently sized one.” Her hearing was probably pretty primed from having her eyes covered so much.
“And your canteen’s almost dry,” Emi said, handing it back to me.
“Then it’s settled.” Kathy urged the horses off the road. “We’ll set up here for a couple of hours and have lunch. Think you two can scrounge up some grub?”
“We’re far enough away from the city that it shouldn’t be a problem,” I said, nodding thoughtfully. “Who wants to fish?”
“I’m kind of enjoying it,” Brenda admitted. “If you all are far enough away, I can take off my blindfold and relax for a bit.”
“Fair enough!” Kathy said, pulling the horses to a stop. “They could probably use some grub, too. Everybody out!”
We all piled out, Emi and I helping Brenda out of the back of the wagon. We spent a few minutes going through my gear, getting out the cooking implements, including the pot that had the last of the boiled wildling in it.
“Think it’s still good?” I asked.
“I have no fucking clue,” Emi admitted.
“Then we’ll assume that it isn’t. I’d rather none of us gets food poisoning.”
“Quite!” John said in his thick New York accent.
I grabbed the crude fishing pole that we’d made with one hand and my halberd with the other before turning to Brenda. “Want me to walk you to the water?”
“Please,” she said, carefully taking my elbow.
I lead the way, but we didn’t get too far. Maybe halfway there before she stopped and removed her headband. For a moment, she squinted, blinded by the sunlight, but her eyes quickly adjusted. “Oh, that’s good. I’m getting a little sick and tired of that thing, to be honest.”
I nodded sympathetically. “I’ll bet.”
“Finish walking me?”
We barely made it three steps before she was looking at me anxiously. “Listen, uh… There’s something that I’ve got to say.”
“If it’s about earlier–”
“Jordan, stop.” She sighed softly. “Just… Just let me say it, alright?”
Brenda sucked in a breath. “We’ve been… Well, we’ve been hitting up drug dealers a lot, right?”
“And cookers, but yeah.”
“Yeah. Well… The thing is… We make sure that they can’t use their stock.”
“Right, we dispose of it.”
Brenda took a slow breath. “In a… manner of speaking. We’ve been taking as much as I can carry and have been selling it to Fenix.”
That made her stop and stare at me. “Okay? Just… Okay?”
“Yeah.” I turned, looking down at her. “Some of the stuff that we’ve been encountering, that’s some chemically complex stuff, and I’m not sure what would happen if it got into the water table. What if we dumped it, and it ended up filtering its way into a well or something? Then a lot of folks could get buzzed or whatever. Really, the best way to get rid of it is to decompose it, which means, y’know, using it.”
Brenda stared at me as if I’d grown a second head. “But you’re against drugs.”
“Yeah, but life sucks, and someone is always going to want to escape it with drugs.”
“But… We didn’t include that in our profit sharing.”
“Yeah, and I spend maybe a quarter of what you all do, and I eat more than the rest of you.” I put a smile on my face. “You all pay for my room and board so much, I’m probably not getting the raw end of the deal.”
She sighed softly. “Yeah, but–”
We were cut off by a high-pitched whine that passed overhead. I knew exactly what that was — I’d heard it enough times. Without waiting for permission, I scooped Brenda up, mindful of my halberd, and began to sprint back towards the wagon.
Within two minutes I was back. Thankfully, everyone else had collected up, as the whine made another pass, more slowly this time.
“What the hell?” Emi asked.
“Response team,” I said, setting Brenda down again. “Rapid response craft, Type B from the sound of it. Unless Muramasa’s making them a new variant now.” Still, the Type B was mostly used for training purposes. Strange.
“Oh come the fuck on,” Kathy growled. “We just did them a solid!”
“We’re still criminals,” John observed. Strange, he seemed like the calmest out of everyone.
“Besides the point! They shouldn’t–”
“Focus,” I barked, and everyone shut up, looking at me. Already, I could hear it descending a distance away. “I know that we rented the wagon, but it might be best to abandon it.” I moved to check my teleporter.
John’s hand caught my shoulder. “Nah.”
Now everyone was staring at him like he’d grown two, maybe five heads. “Nah?” Brenda asked.
“You’ve got an idea,” Kathy said, approaching. “A plan.”
“Oh, yeah. I’ve got a plan.” His lips twisted upwards. “And I think you’re all gonna like it…”